Austin Kleon, prolific blogger, illustrator and author, is a true creative. But he’s also a successful and disciplined business owner. In this episode, he explains how creativity and commerce don’t have to be at odds.
Season 2 – Call Paul – Episode 1
Paul: Hello friend, I’m Paul Jarvis. Welcome to Call Paul, a show where I get to ring up some of the most interesting minds in small business and have thoughtful conversations about their unconventional approaches to commerce.
I’ve run my own small company for the last 21 years and I’ve written books on how bigger isn’t always better in business. In this season I’m talking to folks who are prioritizing doing the right thing over just the most profitable. Some are starting something brand new, standing up their businesses in an entirely new environment. Others have been at it a while, working to ensure their continued sustainability through turbulent times. And there’s lots to learn from everyone.
Austin: Don't worry about your nouns. What people call you, just think about the verbs you want to do. What is it that you want to do? What are your verbs? For me that's reading, writing, thinking, drawing, making stuff and that's it.
Paul:That’s Austin Kleon, author, thinker, draw-er (although as he just said, nouns don’t matter so much) who’s been working for himself for over a decade. He’s written some pretty popular books on cultivating creativity along the way - such as Steal like an Artist, Show Your Work and Keep Going.
My conversation with Austin is the perfect place to start the second season of Call Paul -- it’s a rich exploration of the crossroads between creativity and commerce. And Austin identifies a lot of these threads we’ll be pulling out on upcoming episodes, like knowing your customers, making things you want to see in the world, keeping your name clean, radical transparency, and of course, “showing your work”.
Austin: I grew up in a very rural area in Southern Ohio. And when I was growing up, I didn't... I knew I loved art. I knew I loved music. I knew I loved all these things. I had no idea how to do it. I was like, how do you do this? How do you be an artist? How do you... I didn't know any artists. I didn't know any real professional musicians or anything.And this is kind of pre-internet. I look at my kids now with YouTube and the things that are available to them now. And it seems wild to me what they will do. But for me, it was like, I thought when I was younger well artists are special people, they just have gifts that, so I think whenever I talk about my work, in a sense, I'm still talking to the boy I was, when I was a kid, I'm trying to be like look, you don't have to be special.
Paul: Yeah. I mean, for me I grew up in the burbs and I was told by adults that doing anything creative was going to be a life failure for myself. And there wasn't, I didn't know anybody that did any of those jobs. Being a creative person was a mystery to me.
Austin: You don't have to, there's nothing mystical. I mean, there is something mysterious and magical that happens often in creative work, but you have to be working for it to happen. And that's something, I didn't know when I was younger as the ideas come from the stuff, from the doing, that's really where a lot of the ideas come, they come from the practices, whether it's having a notebook that you write in, or whether it's making collages or whatever, the ideas come out of that interaction with your materials and being out in the world. The way I talk about creative work is the way that all the people I look up to talk about it and those are the people I sought out. And I think that's a very universal story for kids who grew up in areas where nothing's happening, like rural kind of dead zones, culturally, that's a pretty universal story. You just want to meet your people.
Paul: Yeah it took me a while to meet those people. I've been a designer, a touring musician, and a writer. And as a kid I didn't know anybody that did any of those things and all the adult, I don't think the adults did either.
Austin:I wanted to be a songwriter when I was kid. I mean, I wanted to be a music producer and a songwriter and that's what I wanted to do with my life. the cool thing that I realized about music very early on is if you have interdisciplinary pretensions, if you have pretensions towards being a Renaissance person, which I always did someone who did a bunch of different things, music is a great place for that because music needs, not just to play, but it needs words and it needs recording and it needs artwork and it needs marketing. So music is actually a very rich place for people who like to do a lot of different things.
A great example is Radiohead. So when you have a 38 year old guy talking about Radiohead people, their eyes start to glaze over and roll into the back of their heads because now oh some, Middle-aged white guy talking about radio head who wants to hear this, but if you can kind of go back to being a 15 year old in 1997 or 98 and watching the way that they made their websites and the way that they sort of communicated their influences and their kind of show your work ethic while working while also kind of keeping this mystique alive. That completely went mainline straight to my brain. So it's funny now, when I talk to people, I'm like you don't really understand what it was to be a teenager and watch Radiohead doing what they were doing. It was formative. It was very, my early websites were complete rip offs off of some of those weird, OK Computer Era.
Paul: I had an OK computer Era album cover when I was designing the album covers for all my bands.
Austin: I try to pay tribute to them in a sense to those guys, how they really felt they were experimenting with everything, not just their music. And I just think that's so underrated now. I mean, they're elder statesmen now, and people are kind of going on whatever Radiohead had that like, back in the day, it was really exciting.
Paul: Yeah. I think that, I think it's hard to experiment or it's hard to find the courage or whatever it takes to be experimental, but also and I've run into this personally as well. I guess I try to do experiments that aren't so experimental that they're going to ruin everything, but if they ruin just a little piece of something, then I don't care.
Austin: Smallest possible experiment in the sense. I personally, the more of a public person I've become just as the audience gets bigger and more people know my work, I just really am into private experiments now, things that I do at my desk, that I'm not going to show anybody for a while that's the experiment I'm really interested in right now. It's just these kind of private experiments. And then inevitably something that I say, okay, this is going to be private. This is just for me, it'll be good. And then it turns into something that I share.
Paul: So I guess the thing that I'm curious is about, how you bridge creativity and commerce. And does one come before the other or how that works? How do you approach the fact that, yes, what you do is creative work, but it is also a thing that is a job that pays you money to pay my mortgage rent for family, all that stuff?
Austin: Yeah. People say, "oh, you do what you love for a living. That must be so great." I'm like, "I don't love talking about creative work, man. I mean, I love doing creative work. I make my living talking about doing creative work.There are very few people who would just make a living doing what they completely love. Right? There's usually the job element of it. And so I try to be really upfront with people that of that in terms of trying to figure out how creative work is done and then sharing stuff with other people. That's become the business. Right? So that is my business now. And it comes with trade-offs.
Paul: Yeah, by sharing you have a bit less time to do the work, but it’s necessary. And, you’ve really embraced sharing as your job, and it’s something you explored a lot in Show Your Work -- this idea that showing that the creative process isn’t just being genuine but it’s an actual way to engage others with your work.
Austin: The thing also to know about me is I'd been marketing for a year, before Steal Like An Artist came out.... So, my second book, Show Your Work in the trilogy, that is supposed to answer this question. How do I get fame? How do I promote myself?
So I was thinking a lot about marketing and selling and it just occurred, I just felt like this is so powerful, because you don't have to have any finished great thing. You can just be like, "Hey, I'm recording my album you all and I've tested three mics today." Then I would just want to talk about it. I mean that's a musician that gets 40,000 views. Because it's like, this dude's talking about mics and people are interested. Whatever it is. What is cool about Show Your Work, is it felt very edgy when it came out in 2014. It felt very like, "Oh, this is like a new, crazy thing."
What's kind of cool now, is that I hear from people who have read the book and even though social media is terrible, way more terrible than it was in 2014, the tools are way better. I saw a TikTok the other day that was literally just this guy who was like... And the whole TikToks just like, "Here's how to fix stuff on your car." It was just like, "Go to Walmart, go to this isle, get this thing." And it was like a 15 second video of how to fix a tire or how to fill your windshield wiper fluid and I thought, this is genius. This is exactly what I was saying in Show Your Work. I was like, "If you're a plumber, show somebody how to fix the aerator on their sink for free and then they're like, "Oh, that guy." I know you know what I mean and it's just so cool to watch now, but the culture has caught up to the idea now, because we have all the tools almost to a fault where it's like, "Does anyone make anything anymore? Who's made something really great lately."
Paul: Yeah. So then in approaching a new project how do you figure out what string to pull next, And then how do you turn said string you’re into into something that’s monetized - Like your books?
Austin: I've got a Venn diagram, basically in my head of, over here is the stuff that I'm interested in. And then on the other hand is there's the stuff that I think my readers are interested in. And the sliver in the middle is what I try to make money off of. So it's like, it's not the pure thing you think about with creative... With artists where they just follow their vision and chase after. That's not really what I'm doing. I mean, that's more of what I do on my blog or in my notebooks and stuff like that, when I make my actual artworks. But when it comes to books and speaking and stuff like that, I'm always trying to figure out where the audience and I can meet and where that overlap is, what I'm genuinely curious about and what other people are struggling with or want. So for every book, it's like... Because books are the primary product I do right now. For every book it's doing that dance between, well, what do I want to talk about for two to five years? And what do people want from me? And sometimes they tell you directly. That's, what's cool about having a relationship with your audience. And sometimes they tell you what they want you to do.
Paul: Has there ever been I guess, a misstep where that slice of the Venn diagram has led you astray or led you down a path where you're like, "oh crap, this is not the right path?"
Austin: I think. Yes. When I get tripped up, is when I try to behave like a serious author would behave. What my cartoon image of an author is. When "Show your work" came out I was like, "well, I'm a serious author now. So serious authors don't just blog every day about whatever's on the top of their mind. They come up with long, nice online medium essays." And it's like... And they do one a week. And it's like this very... And I started working that way. I just I died on the vine. It was terrible. It was like me saying, "hey, there's this way that I've operated that's gotten me to this wonderful point. And now I'm just going to abandon that and try to act like a professional." And I see that happen over and over with people when they have a little bit of a taste of success. Where they hit and then they try to change saying, "okay, I'm going to bring it to the next level."
And I think that's why I like your work so much. It's just that idea of keeping it small, keeping it... The thing that brought you here is what people want. And if you change your way of operating all the good stuff that you made that brought all the people here. Right? Is going to evaporate. Or it's going to change so much that you're going to do stuff that... You're going to alienate your audience or whatever. So for me, it's always been about going back to that initial, what made me start a blog? What was that initial hunger when I was a nobody and nobody knew me, what was that? And to try to go back to thaton a weekly basis. Try to re-ask myself. What was this initial impulse and then merge that with the commercial you know, trying to run a business stuff.
Paul: Yeah. Well you have been blogging for... I was going to say forever. For forever in internet years. Right?
Austin: 16 years.
Paul: Wow. And blogging has changed a lot. You and maybe a handful of other people I know have actual quote unquote, "personal blogs."
Paul: Does it affect you to see new trends, new software, new ways of talking on the internet? Do you consider those things or do you think this is what's working for me. This is what's keeping me going. Keep my audience jazzed up.
Austin: My feeling with platforms is like, if there's something creatively that... If this platform will make me do more work like I want to do, then I'm down with it. Right? Then, I'm interested. I'm at the point in my career where it's like, I've built my website. People know it's a good place. People know it's like a property they own. It's my own platform that I've built. I'm not really that interested in helping other people build their... Helping some company build their platform. So now it's like, I want to build my own thing and keep it going.
Paul: And I mean, you have really kept it going. What was it like at the beginning?
Austin: I had this feeling in the very early days with blogging where it was like, "I don't have much to say yet, but if I have this thing, I will find things to say, right?" In the blog days, I was like, "I don't have anything to offer people. I don't really even have that much to say, but I feel like if I start this thing and I come to it on a regular basis, things will appear." And that's what happened and in the early days, my blog, my really old blog, if you go way, way, way back in the archives, a lot of it is me drawing other authors. So it's me literally going to events and sketching the authors and then writing about what they said during the Q and A or it's me literally drawing maps of books. I used to read people's books and then make these little mind maps of them and post them on my blog and basically it was just me studying how, okay, what does an author do during a Q and A?
I was accumulating so much information back then that I didn't realize I was working on, but I was accumulating that knowledge, but then I was making this artifact out of an experience that then these authors were like, "Who is this kid? I want a link to this." And I met authors that way. [...] I was like, "If I start this blog and I let people know that I'm here doing this weird stuff, then maybe they'll start visiting and maybe they'll pull me in," but like to just try to join that world as soon as possible.
Paul: Speaking of accumulating knowledge and kind of curating what you’re interested in, The internet is kind of a dumpster fire, right? How do you make the Internet work for you?
Austin: So I'm someone who I have systems for being reminded and processing what I'm interested in. So that's what the notebook is for. So the Twitter feed, they call it a feed. It's like a trough, right? You're like a pig that's just gobbling up whatever people are serving at you. The search box to me is the opposite of the feed. The search box is like, I type in what I'm interested in and I see what comes up and those two modes for me, it's like more search, less feed.
I use Twitter that way. For me, Twitter is like, I came up with it, this is interesting and I tweet it. And then at the end of the week, I go back through my Twitter feed and here's what I found interesting. And then that's where the newsletter comes from.
Or I tweet things and I'm like, "This deserves a blog post." Go over and do a blog post. Right? And then when I'm putting a book proposal together, it's like, "Well, what blog posts do I have on this?" So you've got systems for catching the stuff, but more than anything I just think it's about being genuinely open to new things, of course, but to also have a purpose, to have interests, things you're trying to figure out and discover. I just think your average person, when they go online, they've got proclivities and interests and whatever, but they are not looking for things. I'm looking for things.
...I think it was Philip Pullman, he was like people are having ideas all day. I'm looking for them, I'm on the hunt. I'm looking for ideas, right? And so I wish I had it in here. Every day, every week. When the last newsletter is done, I take out a piece of legal paper and I make a one to 10 list. Okay, what's going to go in the new one? And as the week goes on, I make little notes. I'm like, "Oh, put this in here." And people think it's digital. Oh, you must have this. What app do you use? Or whatever. I'm like, "I literally write it down on a legal pad." And then I look at the legal pad before I put it together.
So for me that’s what I do ...I have my pocket notebook that I carry all day, scribble things in it. Then in the morning I look back at yesterday's pocket notebook, I write my diary, and then usually whatever I thought about in the diary will reveal something that's worth blogging about. And then write about it. And then many of those blog posts become book chapters, or they become talks that become books. So it's this perpetual system for creating work.
Paul: In terms of setting up a business, it can be a bit of putting yourself in a box. Because you pick a specific thing you’re selling. How do you make a box large enough or malleable to be able to fit in your interests or market changes or whatever can change over the long term - have you made it work over the long term?
Austin: There was a reason I named my blog, Austin Kleon.com. I specifically gave it my own name because first of all, I thought my name was weird enough that there was no reason to have a pseudonym. But also I was like, "If I just have a container that has my name on it, then who I am can change over time." [...] first it was the blog of this want to be short story writer. It's whatever it is now. It was a flexible framework.
But the thing that I think is so important in life and business is what William Burroughs told Patty Smith,[...]He said, "Keep your name clean." He said, "If you keep your name clean over time, it becomes its own currency." And Burroughs knew that. Not a guy that was perfect in his personal life. Pretty horrible things happened to him, but he had this wisdom for her. And that's what he told Patty Smith. And if you think about Patty Smith right now, I mean, it's interesting to think about her and her career because she did music for a while, and then she was mom for a while. And then she did these really wonderful memoirs. But the name Patty Smith, I think she's really internalized that.
And so for me, it's about keeping the name clean in a sense. Doing things, trying to have that long-term approach to think that the name will mean something over time. I think that's advice that translates in the business world because I mean, reputation is a big thing. And to make moves just to not be seduced by the short-term gain. To play a long game, to assume that you'll be around for a while.
Paul: Austin really encapsulates this idea of thinking beyond growth hacks, quick fixes, and putting short-term needs over long-term goals. And of course, doing it in a way that considers the right thing… for yourself, and for your customers.
There’s a demystification happening in the way Austin presents his arguments around creativity and commerce, showing that they’re not inherently at odds. He’s both tremendously creative, but also very pragmatic and regimented in the routines he’s created for himself to ensure that he shows up for his creativity every day.
There’s a lesson here for business owners who are starting out or at it for a while: running a business is difficult, very difficult. And easier would be to work for someone else. So, then, maybe the reason we do it at all is because it’s better to make the rules that suit us, and do our work in a way that suits us too. And perhaps, this whole season will show, our companies can be run in a way that does right by our communities, our customers, our planet, and even our own mental wellbeing. ------ Next Friday I’m chatting with a small business owner who took a piece of his family's culture and turned it into an experience that had people lined up around the block on opening day just to get a sip. I hope you’ll join us.
In the meantime you can check out the small business spotlights, sharing with you a behind the scenes peek at the day to day of running a company. These stories are pretty great. I think you'll really enjoy them. They’re also in the Call Paul feed.
Call Paul is wonderfully produced by Ruth Eddy and is a Mailchimp Original Podcast. Subscribe now on your favourite podcast player, so you can check out all our other episodes and seasons. And if you want more awesome content, go to mailchimp dot com slash presents.
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Things are returning to normal – but that doesn’t mean we should go back to the way things were. Paul Jarvis is back, interviewing entrepreneurs who prioritize passion over profit and renegotiated the status quo.
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